The same applies to comics.
Raymond Pettibon, American Cartoonist
By Dan Morris
From the mid-1970s to early 1980s, Raymond Pettibon created a massive body of work for SST Records. He conceived and designed promotional flyers, album cover artwork, and posters most often for the band Black Flag. At the same time, Pettibon was producing zines containing his work. This body of work became recognizable to generations of punk rock fans familiar with Pettibon’s work for Black Flag and other punk bands. Among those fans were many aspiring cartoonists. Raymond Pettibon has been an enormous influence on comics, despite the fact that his work is not widely seen as comics and he is not regularly discussed by comics criticism. It’s past time for this influence to be recognized.
Born in 1957, Pettibon was asked by his brother Greg Ginn to produce art for his new band Panic, which soon changed its name to Black Flag. Pettibon designed not only the band’s logo, the familiar set of broken black bars, but also anything to do with the band and other work for his brother’s label SST Records. This included album covers, t-shirts, posters, and most importantly, flyers that were widely distributed in the Los Angeles area
.. Pettibon continued to produce art for his brother’s band and SST Records until a dispute over unapproved appropriation of his work led him to cease working with the company. Ginn continued to appropriate his brother’s work for a variety of later Black Flag releases. Pettibon has since worked mostly in a gallery art context, exhibiting his drawings and paintings around the world.
Though many other artists are associated with the punk rock aesthetic, Raymond Pettibon is maybe the most iconic and most uniquely suited to influencing comics. Though he did some work which could be seen as comics, most of his work during the Black Flag period was more in line with editorial cartooning, with single images and short lines of texts. This might explain why his work remains largely undiscussed, though that he was not published throughout traditional comics avenues could also be a factor. This is might also be due to Pettibon rejecting his own work as comics. In an interview with The Believer, Pettibon stated “I wouldn’t want to be defined so much by comics or cartoons. My work is more narrative than that. If you take your basic cartoon, there’s always a punchline or a joke at the end. My drawings don’t depend on that so much.”
Nonetheless, his work should still be seen as cartooning. In other interviews, Pettibon talks about having read comics and taken influence from the work of cartoonists such as George Herriman and Milton Caniff. Pettibon makes great use of the vocabulary of comics; black and white pen lines work in conjunction with words and typography to tell a story. However, Pettibon’s work takes many of these conventions and turns them on their head. Pettibon’s lines vary between precise, scratchy, and thin to uncontrolled patches of frenetic brushwork. Words would be used ironically against the pictures. Familiar cultural icons could be subverted in the space of a single image. The effect created a striking visual representation of the music that Pettibon promoted with his work, echoing punk’s resounding rejection of authority and tradition.
Several contemporaneous alternative cartoonists seem to have been influenced by Pettibon. Jaime Hernandez and Daniel Clowes are the two most obvious candidates, even if their current work has moved away from a Pettibon-influence aesthetic. It’s hard to imagine Hernandez’s depiction of Los Angeles area punks wasn’t in some way influenced by Pettibon given the many Black Flag references strewn throughout early Love and Rockets stories. One must also keep in mind that Hernandez lived in Los Angeles when Pettibon was at his most ubiquitous in the punk rock scene, so it seems extremely likely that he had an impact on Hernandez at some level. In a profile on Hernandez in the Pasadena Sun, Hernandez admitted Pettibon’s influence on his own work as he became more involved in the Los Angeles punk rock scene. In an article on the online website Neumu, Pettibon is mentioned in the same breath as Daniel Clowes as two artists with a common visual approach, though again Pettibon denies his ties to comics. The stiff figures, heavy blacks, and strong satirical bent in Clowes‘ earliest work clearly echoes the work of Pettibon. Yet these are more surface elements, and Pettibon, as a contemporary to both Hernandez and Clowes, could not have served as an early formative influence. Instead Pettibon’s influence is best felt in the next generation of cartoonists; the artists who were kids and teens that went to Black Flag shows, bought Black Flag merchandise, and saw the flyers designed by Pettibon.
Maybe the cartoonists who are easiest to identify as influenced by Pettibon are the members of the Fort Thunder collective. Still, it should be noted that the work of Fort Thunder is vastly different from Pettibon’s in terms of content. Pettibon is mostly concerned with commentary on American iconography and culture. Fort Thunder artists address a variety of issues, ranging from environmentalism to community, and all set in alien or fantasy worlds. Though some of these works could be read as political or cultural commentary, that element is clearly less of a focus than in Pettibon’s oeuvre. However,
Even today, Pettibon’s work influences and inspires many of today’s notable alternative cartoonist. There are many elements a modern cartoonist can pull inspiration from his body of work; a commitment to a DIY aesthetic, expressionistic linework, and a variety of imagery. It also helps that Pettibon’s work is still incredible accessible in a variety of forms, from his Black Flag covers to a large volume of his promotional posters recently made available on Vice’s website. When this is taken into account, it’s easy to see how whether directly or indirectly, he’s exerted an influence on a range of contemporary artists from Michael DeForge to Julia Gfrörer. Of all modern cartoonists, Josh Bayer’s work might be the easiest to compare to Pettibon’s work. Bayer has made claim to Pettibon’s work as an influence on him growing up and in many interviews discussed the direct influence that Pettibon has had on his own work. Bayer has taken this further having collaborated multiple times with Pettibon, who is also a contributor to Bayer‘s Suspect Device comics anthology. Pettibon’s influence has come full circle in that he has influenced comics and now contributes to them on a semi-regular basis.
Despite a lack of critical recognition, Raymond Pettibon’s work has provided inspiration to a variety of modern American cartoonists. From the early alternative cartoonists such as Jaime Hernandez and Daniel Clowes to later ones like Josh Bayer and Michael DeForge, Pettibon’s influence can be clearly felt. Hopefully this assessment can provide an entry for the artist to be considered as a significant contributor to the comics art form.
This past weekend at New York Comic Con, Marvel Comics announced that they had finally cleared the rights for reprints of the 1980s comic Miracleman. This came four years after Marvel made the initial announcement they purchased rights to the character. The big announcement was made with Neil Gaiman, via video, talking about how the previously unpublished issue #25 would be released and his run on the series being completed. Later confirmed by the publisher was that Alan Moore’s work on the title would also be reprinted. However; when announced at NYCC this news came sandwiched between discussion of a George Romero project and whatever’s going on with Spider-Man. It’s a curious way to talk about comic that laid the foundation for much of the genre of superhero comics today and possibly an indicator how this material will be treated.
Before discussing why this feels like a non-announcement, let me discuss why this material is important. Alan Moore’s Miracleman is a foundational superhero comic in the same way that Ditko and Lee’s Spider-Man is; it basically changed the way creators treated the genre. A deconstructionist superhero comic, Miracleman is a work that functions both as an adventure comic and a commentary on the very nature of the genre. Alan Moore took this approach to superhero comics as part of a series of deconstructionist superhero stories in the 1980s, the other two being V for Vendetta and Watchmen. V for Vendetta looked at the vigilante as anarchist, Watchmen asked what it took for an individual to dress up in a costume and “enforce justice”, but Miracleman was the comic that asked what it would be like for gods to walk among men. Moore’s love of science fiction writing and his very real fear of nuclear annihilation informed his approach to this material. Alan Moore was a child of the 1950s and 1960s and the paranoia of nuclear armageddon and the violence of those times seeps into every panel of this comic. It’s not a pretty picture as superheroes basically lay waste to the entire city of London and then “benignly” take over the world by the end of Moore’s run on the book. It’s a comic of it’s time but Miracleman has anti-authoritarian themes that reverberate today. Neil Gaiman’s run on the book, which never saw completion, explored the world after the main character turned Earth into a “utopian” society. Gaiman, who has admitted he’s not very interested in superheroes, mostly had stories exploring how people lived in the new world created by these gods. While many of the surface elements (much of the last third of Moore’s run is graphically violent) have been replicated, Moore’s exploration of the superhero as a god among us and Gaiman’s look at how people live in a utopian society both possess potency for the genre today.
Unfortunately, none of this material has seen print in years. Rights to the characters and stories were in various legal limbos and court cases between a many people claiming ownership. Many people have made claims the material would be repackaged and reprinted only for some new hurdle to pop up blocking publication. Several professionals for years have said this material would never see the light of day again because of the various legal issues. By the time Marvel bought the rights to the character, it came across as yet another person claiming that they were ready to publish this material. Now four years later, they’re going to.
So why does the announcement have none of the impact that a work of this level normally might have? There are a number of factors here that need to be considered.
1. Alan Moore
One of the things most people noticed about this announcement is that Alan Moore’s name has not been mentioned once in press releases or even at the initial announcement. A lot of the interest in this material isn’t so much for the Gaiman stories but Moore’s work on the book and rightly so. This is work entirely foundational to a generation of people who read it. Alan Moore though wants nothing to do with North American comics publishers. He’s made it a point that any material he did as work for hire is not to bear his name in reprints. On top of this, more readers today associate Alan Moore with his opinions of current comic books (his opinions are not flattering) than with his groundbreaking work in the 80s and 90s.
2. Previous announcements about this material
Many announcements on when this material would be reprinted have been made over the last decade. The last time any of this was collected over 20 years ago. Message boards in 2001 became very excited when it was announced Todd MacFarlane and Neil Gaiman were working to get the material. Then nothing happened except a lawsuit between the two ostensibly about Miracleman but in the end about two other characters as Gaiman claimed MacFarlane had no claim to the work. Once that was settled, Marvel announced buying the character back in 2009. It’s been four years since that initial announcement and it’s become a recurring gag at cons to ask about this material in Marvel panels.
3. Superhero comics from the last decade
One of the hallmarks of Miracleman is the graphic violence in Alan Moore’s third arc specifically issue 15. The city of London is destroyed in utterly brutal terms by the villain Kid Miracleman in gory detail by artist John Totleben. Until that point in comics, supervillains had rarely been portrayed as sadistic as Moore and Totleben portrayed Kid Miracleman, a psychopath whose superhuman powers had utterly corrupted him. The violent and savage display of power was the logical end result of the story that Moore built over the course of 15 issues. It’s a terrifying spectacle that comes from a very real fear of the time, nuclear annihilation and abuse of that power by individuals in office. However, in the last decade, superhero comics have seemed to take the surface elements of this story and used them ad nauseum. Massive violence of this kind is seen on a regular basis in issues of superhero comics, often for cheap shock value. It’s hard to see how a work like this is going to appeal to this generation of readers when many will see the surface elements and dismiss this comic on that level, not appreciate much of the context and subtext of this work.
It’s been reported in many news reports on the republication that this series will be reprinted serially. It’s a very strange decision in this day and age. Marvel has recently been experimenting with original material presented as graphic novels for some of their characters. In a time when readers live in a golden age of reprints, printing Miracleman as a series of well packaged collections seems like the ideal move. It’s hard to see why this material is being reprinted in such an outdated fashion for reprint material other than maybe for Mark Buckingham to catch up and draw the last issues of Gaiman’s run on the book. The other issue is if this presentation will take into account both the history of the character and the context of the original stories publication. These are stories produced by the terrors that had boiled up in a Post World War II and Post-Vietnam world and used to explore the myth of the “superman”. It’s hard for this to seem like an important genre comic when there’s 6 variant covers offered for every issue. It’s a sales tactic but to me to say that Marvel is marketing this like every other comic they have instead of in the way they want market it; an important work.
There’s many other reasons that I haven’t mentioned here. There are still rights issues with the work that haven’t been addressed. Its not been addressed if any of original creators on the 80s series will see money from this. Apathy in general towards Marvel because of their past treatment of creator’s rights in general and for some the company that won’t award Jack Kirby’s heirs money publishing work mired in creator rights issues seems like bitter irony. The possibility exists that Miracleman as a character will be integrated into the Marvel Universe proper, a move that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense in general.
A lot of apathy exists for the reprinting of a work that is a foundational piece of genre fiction. There are many reasons, some justified, and others not so much. Possibly this will be seen as another comic in a long line of brutal superhero comics or as just another “event book” from publisher known for both. In the end, fans of superhero comics should be excited that a book denied being reprinted for too long once again can affordably sit on their shelves.
I wrote this appreciation a few years ago when a friend asked me who my favorite Jack Kirby characters were. Today would have been the 96th birthday of Jack Kirby who passed away almost 20 years ago. For anyone following this blog who is unaware, Kirby created the visual language of what makes up superhero comics as we known them today. While most superhero comics on the surface are visually a 180 from the surface art of Kirby, whose drawing style was uniquely his, his way of staging action, his dynamic perspectives, and ability to convey drama is imitated to this day. During his lifetime, he gave readers a multitude of characters and concepts that fans of superhero comics are familiar with to this day. Kirby’s characters continue to stand the test of time and here’s a list of six characters that I continue to enjoy to this day.